The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.
This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.
As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!
Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.
The benefit of hindsight ….
As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.
Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.
Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.
Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.
When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.
Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.
Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.
His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.
Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.
This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.
His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.
As blogged before, next summer will mark 125 years since Tower Bridge was opened.
I’ve added a couple of extra pages to this site which is about the man who built the bridge. The first is on how John Wolfe Barry persuaded Parliament to approve the plans for a bascule bridge across the Thames. The second covers the pivotal role of William Arrol in manufacturing and installing the steel framework for the towers that supported the huge bascules. I will add further pages as we get closer to the date.
You can also keep an eye on Tower Bridge’s own plans at its Facebook page and via its Twitter handle @towerbridge .
At least one new book about the history of the bridge will be published, but in the meantime you can read Honor Godfrey’s excellent softback of 1988 through library loans or Amazon.
On 30 June 2019 many of us will be celebrating 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public.
More than a year ago I started putting content on this website about the builder of Tower Bridge with the aim of completing it by 22 January this year, the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death. I was actually ahead of target.
So I’ll set myself another goal for the 8 plus months until we reach the end of June next year: add more content to this website specifically about Tower Bridge, but obviously relevant to what is already here. As I did with John Wolfe Barry’s biography, I will blog as I go along. Tomorrow I will start with the beginnings of JWB’s involvement with the project to span the Thames further east than had ever previously been achieved with a bridge.
Hope you come back to have a look.
This in my final post in a series looking at a project I’m planning to undertake about a specific architectural style and its local communities.
In my last post I described the role of the Belgian architect Victor Horta in creating a unique ‘modern’ style in Brussels at the very end of the 19th Century. There followed a highly active period prior to the start of the First World War where other architects followed his example.
Horta’s style was somewhat disparagingly called ‘noodle’ or ‘whiplash’ by critics. This is because he used strong visual symbols based on nature within many aspects of it. More importantly, he perhaps unknowingly, trod in the footsteps of both the traditionalist ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement in England, and the ‘modernist’ approach starting to emerge particularly from the Chicago school of architecture in the USA. His was a complete solution to a client’s design brief covering every single aspect of a domestic and/or work residence using a range of materials and solutions.
Other architects in Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Finland, Scotland, Spain and the Baltic States drew courage from this radical new approach. It became known as ‘Art Nouveau’, ‘Moderne’, ‘Jugendstil’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Secessionist’ to name a few terms. I particularly like the last one as it best conveys the idea of a break from the past.
In Latvia which was then a part of the Russian Empire, a frenetic period of activity took place for a decade or so after 1899. As a result, the capital Riga has become a World Heritage Centre for the extent of its architecture reflecting this time and style. There is a beautiful museum describing the buildings and key architects, one of whom stands out for me: Konstantins Peksens.
How does any of this relate to Sir John Wolfe Barry, civil engineer?
Probably not very much as he was from an earlier generation and clearly wasn’t an architect like his father and two of his brothers. However, he was in touch with communities: his greatest civil engineering achievement Tower Bridge has resonated with the people of London, in deed the world, for almost 125 years since it was completed.
So, I contacted English Heritage last week to see how things are progressing with my Blue Plaque application for Sir John Wolfe Barry.
It seems that the owner of the building where Sir John died is fine in principle so once planning permission is given then hopefully we will have our plaque.
It looks more and more as if this will only happen in 2019, hence we may well miss the centenary year of JWB’s death. However I’ve already blogged in anticipation of this highlighting 125 years of Tower Bridge next year.
Once I get a date for the actual unveiling of the plaque I will spread the message as it would be good to have a few people there to witness it. In preparation I’ve found this website where you can order your own blue plaque: perhaps one day I’ll get one for myself in anticipation of my passing into history. Just need to persuade someone to fix it up when I’m gone …